Telling a Story

Is it theatre?

I very seldom go into rants – at least here on the blog though I have been known to go into the odd fit of overwritten vitriol on FaceBook. One favourite FB subject is the current theatrical reviews and reviewers in the Toronto Star.

I started reading reviews in that newspaper when Nathan Cohen was their critic (1959-1971). Cohen was passionate and uncompromising in his dedication to Canadian theatre. He could often be brutal in his assessment of performers and productions but always with a concern for the experience being offered the audience. At the same time the Globe and Mail had Herbert Whittaker: Uncle Herbie could be critical but always with a soft edge born of an almost obsessive love of the theatre and actors. Gina Mallet, during her years at the Star (1976-1991), was an intriguing mixture of the two.  She could be “the hatchet lady” but always out of a passion for theatre and a love of its history.  I could go on naming other reviewers who over the years have covered the theatrical scene in Toronto and across Canada in the old Toronto Telegram, the Star and the Globe. The take away from most of them was always the quality of the acting, the directing, the production, and the writing.

The Star now has two freelance critics working the busy theatre scene in and around what, grandly, calls itself the GTA.  I find myself often shaking my head in disbelief when trying to find out what is happening in a theatrical world I, admittedly, often pine for. Most of the “reviews” seem to centre on what Karen Fricker and Carly Maga find politically correct or incorrect about a production or how it fits with their view politic of the world. On more than one occasion I have remarked that they are the only people I know who demand gender equality and diversity in a one person show.

Of a recent production of Jet Butterworth’s Jerusalem we were told that Kim Coats  playing the central – and marathon – role of Rooster made “a remarkable return to the Toronto stage” .  That’s all we learn of his performance of one of the most challenging roles in modern English theatre.  However we do learn that Maga found the central monologue being delivered by a white, straight male “unappealing”.  In a recent Soulpepper production of David Hirson’s verse comedy La Bête the role of the leader of the traditional theatre company – originally written for a man – was played by Sarah Wilson.  However Maga was not pleased that this meant her opponent  “… the man — and a buffoon of a man — is still the one with the 30-minute monologue. He is still the one who laps up the stage, who wraps the audience around his finger, who comes out on top — both in the play, and in the audience’s experience of it.”  Apparently nothing would do but that the play be rewritten to Maga’s standards. At least she did find time to write about Gregory Prest’s performance as that buffoon and found it a brilliant piece of acting.

stephen-fryEarlier this season polymath and quintessential luvvie Stephen Fry appeared at the Shaw Festival in Mythos, a trilogy based on his retelling of Greek mythology.  In her reviews of the three evenings Ms Fricker variously expressed her and her theatre-going companions reservations about: Greek myths being Eurocentric; no acknowledgement of Indigenous mythology; a known gay rights activist telling “all these deeply heterosexual stories about gods”; Fry doing work detached from his “social causes”; the myths being largely male dominated; and how he condones the later by not editorializing on them.  Throughout the three reviews she constantly, and rather puzzlingly, questions if this sort of presentation is really theatre and what exactly is Fry’s purpose in doing this.

Charles-LaughtonSadly I have not had the privilege of seeing Fry’s performance nor can I speak to his reason for presenting it, however it brought to mind one of the most remarkable evenings I recall from my childhood.  My father took me to Massey Hall in Toronto to see Charles Laughton, one of the theatrical giants of the 20th century.  It was a stage bare of anything other than an armchair, a side table, a scattering of rather large books and the larger presence of Laughton in jacket and tie. And all he did was tell stories.  He told stories from the Bible (King James); he told stories from Shaw and Shakespeare; he told stories in rhyme; he told stories in prose; he told personal stories; he told stories.  And it was one of the most theatrical nights I can recall to this day.

I came across a recording of one of his appearances and he begins with a few words that should help answer the question as to whither this sort of thing is theatre:

Laughton often performed excerpts from his story telling show on radio and television.  Perhaps the most frequently seen was his reading from Chapter 3 – Laughton mistakenly says Chapter 4 – of the Old Testament book of Daniel.

And should there by any doubt left that this is theatre here’s another audio excerpt from his performance which says, for me at least, that story telling is theatre.

On this day in 394: The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, the latest known inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs, was written.